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Backstory: Eating as sport and spectacle

By Clayton CollinsStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 25, 2005

The contrast takes a moment to digest. Ed "Cookie" Jarvis - a man of NFL-lineman proportions - has been explaining the mostly genial rivalry among competitive eaters on the pro circuit. Seven of that community's ranked American members are due here at the DeVille Lounge in Boston to decimate large trays of chicken wings in a 10-minute display of gustatory gusto.

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He stiffens slightly at the arrival of Sonya Thomas, "The Black Widow," No. 2 in the world behind Japan's Takeru Kobayashi. Ms. Thomas, an unassuming Burger King manager from Alexandria, Va., weighs about 100 lbs. - at least at the start of contests like these.

Think you packed it away on Thanksgiving? This petite Korean-American woman has consumed 65 hard-boiled eggs in under seven minutes, 35 bratwurst in 10.

Mr. Jarvis, the world No. 4 and a Long Island real-estate agent, acknowledges her with a nod, then leans in and lowers his voice. "She can be beat," he confides, reaching up to adjust his signature Old Glory bandanna.

That the pro game's personalities come in such radically different physical forms - Jarvis and fellow big man Eric "Badlands" Booker are, in fact, increasingly atypical body types - will be just one of the day's revelations. This superlative-stuffed subculture has its own lexicon (wings and ribs, for example, are "debris food"). It has corporate sponsorships (often food purveyors, though Verizon VoiceWing banners hang here today). It even has a governing body, the International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFOCE). And it's growing.

"The most noble and inherent sport known to man," says Rich Shea, the IFOCE's president, adopting a hyperbolic tone one might expect from a man who wears a boater to work. Mr. Shea stalks stages like a carnival barker, and his midway has expanded. The number of sanctioned eating events in the US will pass 100 this year,up from a dozen six years ago. Sponsors will pay out more than $200,000 in prize money.

It is impossible, of course, to effectively institutionalize gluttony without raising serious and sensitive questions in a nation grappling with obesity, an obsession with dieting, and - more quietly - hunger. Some experts on psychology and food react to queries about competitive eating as they might to spoiled meat, perhaps not wanting to be associated with a phenomenon many people consider the dietary equivalent of a circus act. "Outside my area of interest," one replies to an exploratory e-mail. Predictably "exhibitionistic," answers another in a demurral. Others do weigh in.

"They've set up a ritual that's like an icon of a consumptive society," says Richard Shweder, a cultural anthropologist and professor of human development at the University of Chicago. "It's a very public display of mass consumption, and to me it reads almost like a satire."

In fact, the vibe - county fair meets World Wrestling Entertainment - seems rooted in the confluence of playful Americana, modern American excess, and a popular culture in which the ordinary is ordained as "reality" entertainment.

It does have a pedigree. The Nathan's Famous hot-dog-eating contest in New York is a July 4 perennial dating back to Coney Island in 1916. "It's like the Super Bowl of competitive eating," says Randy Watts, a spokesman for Nathan's Famous, in Westbury, N.Y. "Or like winning the green jacket at Augusta."

If pie-eating contests remain a quiet heartland staple, IFOCE events are becoming more of a mainstream spectacle. ESPN and Sports Illustrated now turn up at major competitions. A recent event sponsored by Krystal, a hamburger chain, involved an 11-city tour.